Sure, as we were saying, we lawyers could use some extra computing capacity, but isn’t there something unique about dispensing legal services that makes our positions secure from the onslaught of robots with artificial intelligence? For example, some aspects of providing legal advice involves less data crunching and more soft skills. Doesn’t that protect us lawyers from obsolescence?

Developers at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies have built a new generation of artificial intelligence they call SimSensei–virtual agents that display such high levels of artificial intelligence that it allows them to engage convincingly in back-and-forth interactions with people. SimSensei’s star virtual therapist Ellie is so effective that she is preferred by clients over her human counterparts.    

What kind of intelligence is Ellie tapping into? Ellie interfaces with her human clients in a non-judgmental way using technologically-generated emotion recognition, empathy and emotional understanding. In other words, Ellie is an emotionally intelligent machine.

Lawyer Michael Mills, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Neota Logic, a technology platform for legal services, has suggested that, “[What] make[s] people valuable as technology advances is…empathy. Yes, empathy. Discerning what some other person is thinking and feeling, and responding in some appropriate way.” 

Although, as Susskind points out in the chapter entitled “Objections and Anxieties” of his book The Future of the Professions, since empathy is not something many lawyers have now, envisioning machines that lack that quality does not disqualify them from delivering expert legal services. And as machines improve these EI skills, lawyers are well-advised to at least keep up, less they be outdone in both the computing and relating arenas.

Many experts agree that emotional intelligence can be the key to making lawyers valuable despite technological advances. In Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, the author contends that as “the skills that have been the basis of progress for most of human history: Logic, knowledge and analysis…[are] being commoditized by advancing technology,…the skills of deep human interaction” will only become more valuable.

With the growing involvement of smart machines, emotionally intelligent lawyers offer clients the opportunity to connect with a person who hears, understands and empathizes with their issues, someone to air dilemmas with, someone who can see the gray, help make the difficult judgment calls and then sympathetically explain what’s happening and why and then be there for them during the aftermath.

As Garry Kasparov concluded after being defeated by IBM’s DeepBlue, working together — machine and man — each with their distinct strengths, offers the potential for the highest level of service.

So, no, thankfully, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even some Google-updated Go-competent version, is not likely to replace us just yet as the perfect lawyer. But a human lawyer, who can reliably bring empathy and other emotional intelligence skills to the table, might well.

Our next post will  addess how we can do that.

For further insight into the advantages of emotional intelligence in the practice of law and how to raise yours and your workplace’s, see Muir’s The Emotional Intelligence Edge for 21st Century Lawyers due out this summer from the ABA.